The Summer Man: Mad Men, Season 4, Episode 8 (Commentary)
Is this the way you want to spend this time? Crying? ~ Greg
I wouldn't tolerate that if I were you. ~ Don
In the very first episode of the series, “the boys” (aka the junior male staff of Sterling Cooper) asserted that their chauvinistic behavior was necessary, because it told the female sex “what kind of woman they should be.” In “The Summer Man,” Peggy, Joan and Betty all grapple with that question, each coming up with very different answers, answers that reflect a historical divide in women’s behavior that opened up in the 60’s and widened to a chasm in the 70’s and beyond.
For much of the series, Joan has been presented as stronger and more capable than Peggy in many ways, especially in how she handles men. Peggy has at times looked to Joan as a potential role model in that realm, while ultimately always finding that Joan’s style doesn’t suit her. Coming into her own both personally and professionally and showing more ease and confidence in her relationships than we’ve ever seen, in this episode Peggy makes a clear further break from old models of womanhood, although not without a helpful kick in the skirt from Don.
Watch out fellas, the fun’s over. ~ Joey
Faced with relentless “hostile environment” sexual harassment, Peggy has done what many women did before such behavior was legally prohibited (and those legal prohibitions were enforced – one did not follow the other directly) – she ignores and avoids it as much as possible rather than addressing it directly. But in this episode, the behavior of “the boys” becomes so egregious that she can no longer stay silent. While Joan is the ostensible target of their vulgar speculations and Joey’s pornographic drawing, Peggy is the one who is daily subjected to their relentless sexual dialogue, which she rightly describes as “disrespectful” to them both (a lady-like understatement) when she goes to Don to complain. She expects Don to straighten them out, but he refuses, saying this will only make her into a tattletale. “You want some respect, go out there and get it for yourself,” he admonishes, dismissing her, but not before giving her the authority to fire Joey.
Peggy is initially inclined to show leniency, asking Joey simply to apologize to Joan. But having earlier offered up the classic harasser/abuser’s defense of “I’m not doing anything, Joan’s doing it,” when Peggy has warned him about his trashy sexual talk, he remains clueless even after the axe falls. “C’mon, it’s funny,” he argues before sealing his fate with, “That’s why I don’t like working with women. You have no sense of humor.” After Peggy relieves him of the pain of working with her gender, he confidently suggests, “Let’s see what Don thinks,” leading her to deliver the final blow, the one to his ego: “Don doesn’t even know who you are.”
Later in the elevator, a pleased-looking Peggy asks if Joan’s heard that Joey was fired, but the platter of gratitude she was expecting to be served turns into a bunch of sour grapes. “I’d already handled it,” Joan icily informs her, criticizing Peggy’s actions as a way to advance herself while undermining Joan by suggesting she needs a protector. “You wanted to be a big shot,” she tells Peggy, before laying down the cold hard truth of the era (and, well, ours). “But no matter how powerful we get around here, all they have to do is draw another cartoon.” She finishes with the acid observation that Peggy has harmed them both: “All you’ve proved is that I’m a meaningless secretary and you’re another humorless bitch.”
But how did Joan “handle” the situation? In the first encounter, she talks to Joey privately and calls him arrogant only to be subjected to the horrific comeback that she does nothing but walk around the office looking like she is waiting to get raped (all the more horrific since we know Joan was raped at the office) and that she dresses like a madam in a whorehouse – comments which silence her. In the second encounter, when she confronts the crew of boys about the obscene drawing, she tells them that she’s looking forward to them all being in Vietnam the next year and that when they’re dying, it won’t be for her because she never liked them.
While masked in Joan’s exquisite calm delivery that sounds so adult, this response can only be termed adolescent (at best). I’d say it reminded me of an upset kid telling a playmate, “I want my ball back,” but that would risk Stan rising from the ether to tell his big balls joke. Staying silent in the face of rape comments and saying, “I never liked you” when humiliated is no defense or deterrent against harassment. The boys see Joan as a schoolmarm who “hands out demerits” and Joey compares her to his mother, saying every office has a Joan who tries to tell everyone else what to do. Joan is a joke to them in more than just the sexual sense, and she does nothing to change her status or their opinion of her.
I started with exact change. ~ Peggy
And she exacts change. By contrast, Peggy takes the assertive course of firing Joey, to which he responds with, “Well, I was wrong about you.” By acting in a business-like and authoritative way, Peggy has changed her status and how she will be seen in the future. Joan argues against Peggy’s approach saying if she’d wanted Joey fired, she could have arranged to have Mr. Kreutzer of Sugarberry Ham get him axed, missing the point that having men do your power work for you (and working behind the scenes to make that happen) is the old model of womanhood that leaves women powerless to do otherwise. Don gives Peggy power behind closed doors which she acts on publicly; Joan believes in the opposite model of being the powerful woman behind the man while appearing publicly in a limited and traditionally feminine role.
She blames Peggy for consigning her to “meaningless secretary” status but she's the one who’s failed to do more than scold the men in the office. Stuck dealing with petty gripes about the vending machine, she tells people to call the complaint line and “have an adult deal with the problem,” and snipes at people who walk through her office but doesn’t demand one that’s not a thoroughfare (in contrast to Peggy boldly asking Roger for Freddy’s office). As intimidating as she is to the secretarial pool, as adept as she is as handling men sexually and socially, and as capable as she is with firm logistics, Joan seems unable to establish real authority with the younger men in the office, a clear signal that her style of womanhood is fast becoming obsolete. Even at home, she’s now a far cry from the take-charge woman we’ve seen before, weeping and acting submissive with Greg, who brushes aside her lack of sexual interest by telling her to imagine she’s having an illicit nooner at a hotel – a strange suggestion from a man who once was so threatened by her sexual past of just such encounters that he raped her. And of course that brings up the most distressing choice of Joan’s – to stay with and marry a man who did that to her, and now to be bereft at the thought of him leaving her, because she has no other friends.
It’s a very brave person who does something anonymously. ~ Joan
Saturday far enough into the future? ~ Don
Not normally but you’re in luck. ~ Faye
Not leaving the women to do all the hard work, Don considers what kind of man he wants to be while plunging into the pool as well as into new habits of mind and body. One answer to his question should have been obvious all along: He wants to be a blogger!
Feeling ashamed that up till now he’s been a mere proto-Twitterer (never writing anything longer than 250 words), he starts a journal. This startling new development takes us into the sanctum sanctorum of the series, namely Don’s thoughts and feelings. Up to this point, these have been doled out in the emotional equivalent of tweets, spare bits of dialogue that give us glimpses of his psyche, which is treated as more precious than his secret life history. It turns out that the great mystery of Mad Men isn’t “Who is Don Draper?" but “Who is Dick Whitman?” Forget his background and how he became an advertising wiz. What’s inside this guy?
Fantastically enough, one of the first things we learn about him is that he wants to develop a “modicum of control” over his emotions – which sounds like Lady Gaga wanting to be more adventurous with her wardrobe. Don’s all about the control, even when he’s angry. Those surface tempests are deceiving – his real feelings are always locked away, even from himself, a layer or two or three below what he reveals. Anger, after all, is generally a covering emotion. We’re angry for a reason -- usually because we are afraid, because something we don’t want is happening, or something we do want isn’t – or even because something we do want is. As George Bernard Shaw put it, “The second greatest tragedy is to lose your heart’s desire. The greatest is to gain it.”
So, what does Don’s heart desire? To begin with, not to be the man he’s been waking up as. That means waking up in a different way, by drastically cutting back on his drinking (to a seeming maintenance dose), starting to swim because it clears his head (not for work, but for “something”) and makes him feel weightless. Having been burdened with secrets, lies, ambition and fury for much of the series, Don begins to become, if not buoyant, at least capable of keeping his head above water and swimming a straight line. He literally gets his breath back, finding that physical inspiration without which life ceases.
And while he’s always been a Zen master of advertising, who knew he had the makings of a real writer in him, with his trenchant observations about his daily existence (even when he fears that it makes him sound like a little girl prattling about his day) that flow seamlessly into insights into the human condition. In the most extended and poignant of these internal monologues, we watch as Don collects the boxes of possessions that Henry has insisted he finally remove from the garage. Picking up the boxes sadly marked “Draper” (why not “Don”?) that have been kicked to the curb, he notices Henry mowing the lawn while refusing to look at him, and we find out that Don may feel more kinship with his fellow Betty-husband than we’d guess:
When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him. If you listen, he’ll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going and then he woke up. If you listen, he’ll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel and dreamt of being perfect. And then he’ll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn’t perfect.
At this point, we see Don throw his boxes in a dumpster, discarding his old life, the façade that’s been Don Draper, even if he has to keep the name. After a brief shot of Henry icing out Betty while she ices Gene’s birthday cake, we see Don dressing for a date and hear the clincher:
We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.
Don is not engaging in simple regret at the end of his marriage and the loss of his daily life with his children. He’s putting his finger on the essence of the human condition, which is to always want what’s right around the corner, whether receding or coming towards us. We wish for what we once had, yes, and for what we still hope to find, but we also wish for what we have even as it’s right before us.
Choosing to “be here now” (as Ram Dass urged people in a famous book of the era), Don goes on a date with Faye, having decided that the time is finally right – something she agrees with. After learning that her father is slightly mobbed up, and in Faye’s words, “a handsome two-bit gangster like you,” he chooses to measure out his intimacy as carefully as he does his drinks. Passionately kissing her in the back of a taxi, he nevertheless demurs at her offer to go home with him, saying that what they’re doing is as “far as I can go right now.”
Earlier in the episode on a different date, Bethany used the back of a taxi for some of the “intense prolonged contact” that she spoke of needing from Don, while completely failing to advance their intimacy. Don dismissively tells his journal that he already knows her, before swiftly moving on to a fantasy of all the women in the Barbizon stroking themselves to sleep, making it clear that the similarly named and appearing Bethany could only be another Betty to him, unable to hold his interest intellectually or emotionally and thus prevent infidelity.
Having observed them on their date, Betty snidely tells Francine that Bethany is “all of 15,” an exaggeration that nevertheless seems true when Bethany’s behavior is put alongside that of the mature and assured Faye, who recounts a fable by Aesop in which the wind fails in a contest with the sun to convince a traveler to take his coat off. Fierce blowing by the wind only makes the man pull his coat tighter around him, while he chooses to remove it when the sun slowly warms him. Like Anna, Faye knows how to gentle Don, skittish horse that he is (not unlike the one that killed his father), her soft tones and sharp intellect combining to make her challenging but also accessible. She blends the traits of the other women without seeming an obvious type, or a perfect character (that ugly conversation with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend that Don overhears reassuring both him and us that she’s not without flaws, while also showing she can stand up for herself).
“And the moral is?” Don inquires after hearing the fable. “Kindness, gentleness and persuasion win where force fails,” Faye replies, thus defining the terms of relationship that she will accept.
Don takes the rather forceful step of showing up for baby Gene’s second birthday party, bearing a huge stuffed elephant, that totem of memory which was also referenced last week by a drunken Don, who said of the Samsonite brainstorming that he and Peggy did, “Every time we get into this, we abandon the toughness idea. Maybe there’s something to the elephant.”
Maybe there is something to the elephant, to memories. Maybe our pasts are not to be forgotten or hidden but remembered and embraced, and maybe real toughness comes not from obscuring but embracing what we fear are our deepest weaknesses. Betty has angrily told Francine that Don doesn’t get to have “this family” and his new life, too, and yet he seems on the verge of that– a melded world in which he can dandle his infant son while developing a compelling new life in parallel. Realizing that he actually likes sleeping alone, likes the space in which he can stretch out like a skydiver, the cool spots that are his alone, Don reminds himself that he should appreciate it rather than making it one more thing he had that he’ll wish to get back later. Standing outside his athletic club, we hear the inimitable strains of “Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” but in fact, Don’s learning how to get precisely that, from acts as simple as a vigorous swim or the smell of summer in the air.
“We have everything,” Betty says smilingly to Henry, who seems fooled by her apparently accepting her new life at last. But the wistful look she gives Don and Gene tells us that she’s feeling the opposite, that she still thinks she has nothing that she truly wants, while at the same time Don isn’t the “sad bastard” that neighbor Carleton thinks he is. “That’s an act,” she bitterly retorts, without knowing she’s both right and horribly wrong. Her former husband has been acting a part for as long as she’s known him, but now that he’s finally becoming himself, she can’t recognize it, for the simple reason that she’s too caught up in her own act.
“Be careful,” her friend Francine tries to warn her. “Don has nothing to lose and you have everything.” Like Betty, Francine is both right and wrong. It’s nothing that Don has lost – the nothingness of his false existence – while Betty has only the appearance of having everything and in fact, has nothing, because she’s incapable of being present in her own life, or with the people in it.
“People tell you who they are but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be," Don observes. When he told Betty who he really was, she had to reject him because he’d destroyed her fantasy of the perfect man she’d wanted him to be. Betty’s not just incapable of facing facts about people; she’s incapable of facing faces. The simple sight of Don’s date (who is in fact stunned and intimidated by Betty’s beauty) sends her reeling into the women’s room, dropping both her purse and her façade since no one can see her, hiding away and shakily smoking.
Betty’s the one who can’t get no satisfaction – not in the traditional role of wife and mother, no matter whether she’s the wife of the sexy, dangerous man or of the safe, responsible one. She tells Henry she’s had one husband who tried to control her and doesn’t want another, and that she’s tired of always having to defend herself. But the defenses are her own, against her feelings and desires, as well as against realizing what would be required of her to act on them. Like Joan, Betty’s operating from an outdated model of womanhood that’s dying around her.
In trying to claim everything for herself – the house, the kids, the moral high ground, the right to happiness -- Betty’s losing it all, including her chance to know herself. Don tosses away the detritus of his past, embraces the present and finds himself happily in the arms of both his child and a woman who may truly want to know him rather than cling to a fantasy that can only disappoint. The episode begins with Blankenship describing her cataract surgery, “It was a nightmare. The ether and blindness and then I got the goggles. I tell ya, I was blind and now I see.” Both Don and Betty have been anesthetized and blinded, numbed and restricted, by personal trauma and social conditioning, but so far, only one of them has gone under the pain of the knife and come out with the goggles.
To be continued. ~ Bethany
I bet she was thinking of that line all night. ~ Don, not writing about a certain blogger (although he could have been)